If you’ve read any (or all) of the Hunger Games novels or seen the films then you’re likely to have a specific view on one Coriolanus Snow. But the presidential position (and villainous temperament) the character held in the original trilogy of novels, and later quartet of films as played by Donald Sutherland, is far from the Snow seen in The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, a prequel set some 64 years before Katniss Everdeen volunteered as tribute and challenged the fibre of what it was to be in the titular games themselves.
Based on the novel written by series scribe Suzanne Collins and directed by predominant franchise helmer Francis Lawrence (who has all but the original film to his credit), Songbird & Snakes (it’s just easier referring to it that way) places itself in a post-war Panem where the 10th annual Hunger Games are on the horizon, and Coriolanus (here played by Tom Blyth) – or Corio, as his Grandma’am (an overdone Fionnula Flanagan) and sweet cousin, Tigris (Hunter Schafer), like to call him – seemingly has a bright future ahead of himself within the Capitol, hoping to restore the glory his family once held.
That fallen glory is due to Snow’s father, a former general, being outed as a rebel, and the young lad has made sure that his intelligence keeps him above water with the other Academy students he swans about with. Coriolanus is under the impression that he’ll be rewarded the Plynth Prize too, a prestigious award that would enable him to feed his family; as much as the film would like us to believe the Snows are hard done by however, their wardrobe certainly indicates they aren’t exactly existing in poverty.
Of course, just handing such an award to Coriolanus would be too easy – certainly from a narrative point of view as well – and on the same day the students are gathered to find out who has taken such a prize home, Casca Highbottom (Peter Dinklage), Dean of the Academy and the author of the Hunger Games, and Dr. Volumnia Gaul (Viola Davis, devouring every line and moment possible), head gamemaker, have an alternate announcement that sets forth the foundation of the games that we have come to know from the succeeding films.
“Turn these children into spectacle, not survivors” is Dr. Gaul’s sales-pitch to the students, offering them a final chance to prove their worth for the Plynth Prize as they are paired with a tribute from each district in a final attempt to boost interest in the games themselves. It’s appropriately sick and twisted – let’s not forget that the games at the core are about children killing other children for their own survival and the entertainment of others – and where Songbirds & Snakes gives us an interesting insight into these earlier games is how they are structured. The grand arenas, expansive worldbuilding, pre-game interviews, tribute donations and stake-raising additives from the Gamemakers are nowhere to be seen here. It’s an amphitheatre, built of stone, where the tributes – after only 2 days of being chosen – are placed and left to fend for themselves. It’s barbaric.
The way the eventual President Snow reacted to the defiance of Katniss in the original series, and his noting of how he saw himself in her actions, certainly resonates here, as Coriolanus understands what needs to happen to the games in order for both himself to win and for Panem as a whole to continue watching. Dr. Gaul said herself she expects the tributes to be treated as spectacle, and when Coriolanus’ ideas reach her, she recognises his potential and starts implementing his ideas. Whilst it could be deemed evil, Coriolanus is acting more selfishly than anything, believing that his survival hitches solely on the tribute he’s been assigned to mentor: Lucy Gray Baird (Rachel Zegler), a travelling singer who lays her hopes predominantly on her lush voice.
It’s in the character of Lucy that Songbirds & Snakes sees one of its major problems though. Whilst Zegler has a fine set of pipes, the Michael Lesslie–Michael Arndt-penned script shoehorns in far too many musical sequences for no other sake than to showcase Zegler. Whilst there is one or two instances where her singing could be deemed necessary, it becomes almost comical how many times we are subjected to her vocals, and aside from her singing there feels as if there’s little else to define her character. It’s a shame too, because there’s a certain “prove yourself” mentality to the way Lucy carries herself, suggesting there’s much more to her than on the surface, and in the games themselves she expresses an intelligence and strength that feels at odds with how she’d like to present herself to the public and, at least initially, to Coriolanus. That Lucy is what Songbirds & Snakes should have been emphasising.
It also doesn’t assist the film in that Blyth and Zegler have barely-registered chemistry, with his scenes opposite Davis and Schafer proving far more interesting – even if Schafer’s Tigris gets remarkably low screen time. The chess-like dynamic between Coriolanus and Dr. Gaul keeps the film truly exciting, and because of their matched intellect and evident unpredictability, Songbirds & Snakes can’t help but feel as if it needs to serve us another prequel to truly fill us in on just who he is, as the film feels unsure who it wants to project as its main protagonist.
What’s perhaps most frustrating is that, initially, Songbirds & Snakes feels like its hitting most of its stride with the game portion itself. The brutality and scrappy nature of the game is engrossing – especially in contrast to how we have seen the games portrayed in the other films – and Jason Schwartzman‘s turn as the first television host of the televised games, Lucretius “Lucky” Flickerman, a “man who needs no introduction”, is wild and wicked and, like Davis, absolutely dominates the screen whenever he’s gracing us with his presence.
But the post-game landscape doesn’t prove as investing as what the original films managed, with Lucy going back to performing and Coriolanus serving in the army merely resulting in extended sequences that circle information for the sake of melodrama rather than tackle anything head-on. It severely loses its pace, and by the time Coriolanus starts to reveal a more sinister mentality, it all comes off as too little too late. The villainous temperament doesn’t feel organic to the Coriolanus we have spent the last 157 minutes with, and in addition to needing a prequel to this, it also feel as if we need a sequel informing us as to how he became such a presidential figure. Ultimately, there’s far too many questions asked here left unanswered.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes is screening in Australian theatres from November 16th, 2023.